Simona Halep surges back against Sloane Stephens to win French Open
A year after blowing the French Open final from a set and a break up, Simona Halep won the title from a set and a break down, leaving spent and battered at the end of a wonderful conclusion to the tournament.
A grand slam champion at last, after failing here against and , as well as in , Halep let the tears flow the very second that Stephens’s last ball billowed the net. Nadia Comaneci hugged her tight, as she clambered into the stands to celebrate with family and friends, including her manager, Virginia Ruzici, the only other Romanian to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, 40 years ago.
It was a heartwarming victory, one that looked unlikely for long stretches but inevitable at the end, Halep dragging herself out of a numbing torpor to crush the American 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
“In the last game, I felt I could not breathe any more,” she said. “I just did not want to repeat what happened last year. I am really thankful this has happened in Paris, my special city.”
After a rousing burst to hold at the start, Halep lost her grip to gift Stephens an early break but it did little to curb her no-nonsense hitting.
Both players struck with full-blooded power from deep in a series of knife-edge rallies, before Stephens broke for a second time. And on they smote, the crowd captivated by their commitment. Only Camila Giorgi has been able to out-hit Stephens this tournament, though, and she patiently absorbed the best that Halep had to offer.
Although Halep had already secured her world No 1 ranking by reaching the final, there was much more at stake here: her reputation. It would be going some to say she has choked on the big occasion but she certainly has wrestled with her temperament under pressure.
Stephens, meanwhile, remained a picture of calm, as she has done every time she has made a final, winning all six of them, . That victory over her friend and compatriot Madison Keys in front of their home support heightened her thirst for the game’s biggest prizes and, when she beat Keys again in the semi-finals here, she showed there was no softness in her, just a steely determination to make the most of her talent. Where once there was petulance and attitude now there is contentment.
Even when her level dipped and Halep worked her way back into the first-set fight, Stephens did not sway from her steady rhythm. Watching from side-on, the drawn-out exchanges were mesmeric, and Halep sucked it up to stay in contention at 3-5.
She needed a change of gear – and a drop-shot that looked almost an afterthought caught everyone by surprise, to snatch a break point. Reverting to her programmed ways, she struck a forehand wide and the set was gone, in 42 minutes.
Halep then needed a line-scorching forehand to save at the start of the second but Stephens conjured a wonderful running save and cross-court chip to break again.
Stephens’s strokes were flowing as smoothly as Tupelo Honey now, and Halep was straining to stay with her. While the dirt near the net remained pristine, the players were digging trenches at either baseline, as they tested each other’s strength and technique to failure.
What had begun as a fair fight was turning into an ordeal for the Romanian. With increasing regularity her best efforts were finding the net. She seemed powerless to stem the remorseless quality of artillery coming her way. But Stephens’s first serve, which had powered her through six matches at an impressive 68% success rate, slipped to 43%, and Halep sniffed a chance.
As despair threatened to overwhelm her, she grabbed three break points, took the first and was back in the contest. It was the shift she had been waiting nearly an hour for.
She held to love. Her fans found fresh voice. All of a sudden, her risky shots were landing clean. Stephens’s legs slowed. Her clarity of purpose deserted her. Halep broke again. It was the American’s turn to struggle – and she responded by breaking back to love and holding to 30.
After looking as if she were about to trample Stephens underfoot, Halep had to dig deep as the rallies lengthened once more. But, hammering the backhand and waiting for a short reply to kill the point, she broke to level at a set apiece.
Having avoided calamity, Halep had conviction in her athletic strut once more, looking altogether the more dominant player at the start of the decider. Still slugging away at her opponent’s increasingly weary backhand, she ground her way to a priceless 3-0 in 11 minutes. Having been on the bus home half an hour earlier, she was back on track. The title was hers to lose.
The challenge for Stephens was not only to rediscover her touch and precision, but to find a second wind. This was the point when Halep faded against Ostapenko. However, when her passing shot clipped the net to confound Stephens’s response, she must have known it was finally her day. And, after a brilliant leaping backhand volley forced a bungled, close-quarters response from Stephens for another break, Halep’s coach, Darren Cahill, jumped from his seat, not a common sight.
The journey from there to the finish line was relatively stress-free. When a solid but not blinding serve turned Stephens’s racket to rubber and the ball sailed long, she was one game from elation.
Stephens found a late gasp of resistance to save losing the set to love, but it was futile.
The full-stop to the story arrived just past two hours as Halep found her first ace before finishing the job with a serve that Stephens could do no more than bat into the net.